Cambodian American Eden Teng was was born in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Cambodia just a few years after the Cambodian genocide. She moved to the U.S. with her mom and aunt when she was 6.
Teng attributes much of her own resilience in transitioning to the U.S. to her exuberant mom, who wore whatever she wanted and wasn’t afraid to defy social norms — even when it was embarrassing for a teenage Teng.
But when she was growing up, Teng also witnessed the negative impacts of historical, racial and intergenerational trauma on her mom’s wellbeing. Teng often felt confused by the way her mom’s emotions could spiral out of control for seemingly no reason, or why why she had so many health problems.
When Teng first encountered psychology in college, she realized that her mother’s past was directly connected to her emotional and physical health. (Scientists are learning that stress and trauma are sometimes linked to chronic illnesses, like hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.)
It was this realization that compelled Teng to become a therapist; in 2018 she began her graduate studies in Seattle.
But when COVID-19 hit and the Black Lives Matter movement came into full force, with communities of color having a more public conversation about their struggles in the U.S., Teng says she started feeling differently about her training and the profession she’d be entering. She began to notice how dealing with certain issues, including race and immigration, were not given priority in her clinical training — even though she knew how important they are in shaping a life.
“I didn’t feel represented, and I felt that so much of my family’s history just didn’t feel like it was considered,” she says, adding that she was studying under teachers who were predominantly white. “I just felt silenced in my own history [and] my own experience in the work that I was doing.”
Teng’s graduate program isn’t the only one like this. Therapy is a predominantly white field in the U.S. — 80% of psychologists, 63% of counselors and 59% of social workers are white, according to Data USA, a website that constructs visualizations of public federal data.
Many of the founding ideas, techniques and schools of practice of therapy were developed by white scholars or practitioners. As a result, the field has marginalized the experiences of people of color, therapists and patients say. Microaggressions are also pervasive in psychological practice, researchers note, and many immigrants report not attending therapy because of language barriers, a lack of insurance and high costs.
That’s why Teng wanted to take a new approach. For her, that meant joining a growing movement of other counselors hoping to transform the practice of therapy, to make it more accessible and relevant to people of color and — ultimately — to help them find healing.
Embracing a practice of ‘decolonizing therapy’
Teng was initially inspired by people like Dr. Jennifer Mullan, who refer to this work